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R.A.V. v. City of St. Paul, Minnesota

    Brief Fact Summary. The Petitioner, R.A.V. (Petitioner), is a juvenile accused of burning a cross in his neighbor’s yard. This was done in violation of a city ordinance that prohibits such action.

    Synopsis of Rule of Law. Prohibition of the use of fighting words must be uniform across all topics or else the law is an unconstitutional restriction of speech.

    Facts. In 1990, the Petitioner and some other juveniles made a cross out of table legs. They placed it in the yard of a black neighbor and set it on fire. The Respondent, St-Paul, Minnesota (Respondent), chose to prosecute the Petitioner under the Bias-Motivated Ordinance, which made it a misdemeanor to place a burning cross on public or private property, when someone knows or should know that this will result in anger by the victim.

    Issue. Is the ordinance substantially over broad and unconstitutionally content-based?

    Held. Yes. The ordinance is unconstitutional on its face. It is a content-based ordinance that does not fall into an exception of the First Amendment of the United States Constitution.
    Concurrence.
    Justice Byron White (J. White): The ordinance is unconstitutional because it is overbroad.
    Justice Harry Blackmun (J. Blackmun): The ordinance goes beyond regulating fighting words.

    Discussion. The ordinance prohibits fighting words only as they apply to cases of racial, gender or religious harassment. Other fighting words that are directed at political affiliation or homosexuality are allowed. Because of this prohibition of speech in particular areas, while others are unrestricted, is why the ordinance is held unconstitutional.


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